Friday, September 9, 2011

Book Review: Shanghai Girls by Lisa See

Random House, 2009; 309 pages; ISBN  1400067111
My Goodreads Rating: 1 star
This was my second try at a Lisa See book and mostly I took it on because I was convinced that I was in the wrong when it came to her books.  I had previously read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan and was very underwhelmed by it.  I couldn't understand why everyone clamored over her books at the library, why she had such high ratings on Goodreads and why her books are now even getting made into movies but yet I remained disenchanted? So with Shanghai Girls I was really hoping to switch to the other side of things (the other side being the majority of Lisa See's readers).  Alas, again I was left feeling dissatisfied, irritated, and ultimately bored.  The author's writing in my opinion is unimpressive and many times repetitive.  I just felt like it was dragging and dragging along.  Much of the dialogue is unnatural sounding and there are redundant descriptions galore that don't do anything to evolve the characters or the plot.  See tirelessly describes cheongsams, the characteristics of the Chinese Zodiac animals, and many typical Chinese foods, but these don't do anything to help with the characterizations of Pearl and May or their families.  I felt like the opportunity to tell an exciting saga was missed because the author felt it necessary to only focus on certain aspects of her characters, so everyone comes off as one-sided.  Pearl feels a responsibility towards her younger sister and her filial duties. She makes one bad decision after another and never once has the guts or the courage to change her destiny.  May is a bit more interesting and my favorite of the two, but even she comes off as selfish and what could have been a great fiery spirit only burns as a weak flame.  In the beginning of the story the two girls are described as forward thinkers in a cosmopolitan Shanghai.  They are non-traditionalist women and they dream of bigger and better things than being married off and living as obedient housewives like their mother.  But the second world war rages through China and their dreams are dashed.  After some great tragedies the sisters find themselves in America, but they stay tied to an insensitive, miserly old man whose main concern is having sons and ancestors that will worship him in the after life, but all of his sons except one are paper sons.  Pearl and May are roped into this situation and the entire time I was just waiting for them to somehow escape this life.  That would have been exciting.  But alas we are left with a pretty hum drum story of life in old Chinatown and new Chinatown and even newer Chinatown, Los Angeles.  Like I said - boring.  I have to mention that I listened to the audio version of the novel and I was also not pleased with the narrator.  She made no real effort to differentiate her voice in between characters and even she sounded bored as she read the text.  I only continued listening to find out about Joy, which I should mention is the center of See's new novel Dreams of Joy.  Hopefully this one is a lot more exciting, but I'm definitely not going to find out.  No more Lisa See for me.

Photo: From website


  1. I didn't love Shanghai Girls but Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is one of my faves. Not exciting in the general sense but moving and stirring into the pits of the stomach is how I'd describe it. I like slow, wistful and inherently sad. That sounds terrible.. So sorry you didn't like it! Lol. Literary tastes are so incredibly personal.

  2. Snow Flower was okay but I agree that Shanghai was lackluster. In addition, it ends oddly--as if Lisa is about to begin a new chapter. I suppose she did that on purpose but it was disorienting.